Written by Brett Weiss
Samuel McChord Crothers, an American essayist and minister, came up with the term “bibliotherapy” in a 1916 essay entitled “A Literary Clinic.” The essay makes light of matching books to patients and ailments, treating ills ranging from depression to unemployment. Moreover, many “insane asylums” across the United States have had libraries since the mid-nineteenth century. One of the primary reasons for libraries in “insane asylums” was for bibliotherapy, using reading for healing.
Human awareness of the therapeutic benefits of reading goes back as far as the second millennium BC. The Greek historian, Diodorus Siculus, found at the entrance of the sacred library of Pharaoh Rameses II an inscription that read “Healing-place of the soul.” Michel de Montaigne, a prominent Renaissance essayist, argued for three possible cures for the terrible mental affliction of loneliness: having a lover, having friends, and reading books. He argued that the problem with having a lover is that sexual pleasure is fleeting and betrayal is all too common. He thought that friendship is much better, but it is ended by death. He concluded that the only enduring therapy through life is reading– so long as we have our mental capacities, sight, or someone to read to us.
Numerous personal accounts throughout history point to the therapeutic values of reading. For instance, the nineteenth century philosopher, John Stuart Mill, claimed that reading William Wordsworth’s poetry cured him of depression. He also stated that returning to Wordsworth’s writings again and again subsequently made his bouts of mental illness less severe.
Negative evidence throughout history points to arguments of harmful effects of reading some literature. The arguments assume that reading alters mental states and changes behavior. The popularity of novels in the 18th century caused alarm for some physicians and moralists, because they thought that Gothic fantasies and romance novels would conjure hysteria in young women who read such literature. The romance novels included those of Ann Radcliffe, along with novels of “swooning sensibility” from Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Plato of ancient Greece proposed that all poets be banished from the ideal republic, because they stirred unhealthy emotions. He argued that proliferation of murder, rape, and incest in Greek tragedy was not good for society. Aristotle replied that on the contrary, poetry and drama display dark desires and dangerous emotions in the space of fiction. Aristotle went on to argue for the therapeutic benefits of such fiction which issued the purge of unhealthy emotions, a process he referred to as catharsis. Sigmund Freud applied the term catharsis to psychoanalysis and stated that theory and practice of the “talking cure” stemmed in large part from classic literature, especially the Greeks and William Shakespeare, of which he was well versed.
The “reading cure” preceded the “talking cure,” though. In the early 1800s, the religious revival termed the “Second Great Awakening” swept through the country with a series of social reforms from women’s rights, abolition, and improved understanding of mental illness. For the first time, insanity was seen as a physiological condition which could be treated and often cured. The asylum was seen as a place where patients could go to rest and recover, and a significant portion of the recovery had to do with “moral therapy.” Moral therapy included woodwork, gardening, sewing, and reading. It was within moral therapy that bibliotherapy took root– using books to cure mental afflictions.
The rich history of bibliotherapy has inspired ReLit, a new Bibliotherapy Foundation. ReLit is a charitable enterprise founded in 2016 that is dedicated to mindful reading. The premise of the foundation is that immersion in great literature can alleviate afflictions, restore the mind, and reinvigorate those with mental afflictions. The foundation’s mission is to alleviate anxiety through reading as well.
Many researchers desire hard numbers and data for evidence of the merit of bibliotherapy. ReLit will pursue studies in order to obtain numbers and data that scientists want. At the same time, the testimonies of centuries of readers speak volumes toward the benefits of bibliotherapy for those willing to listen.
- Bate J, Schuman A (2016). “Books do funish a mind: the art and science of bibliotherapy.” Lancet 387(10020): 742-3.
- Levin L, Gildea R (2013). “Bibliotherapy: tracing the roots of a moral therapy movement in the United States from the early nineteenth century to present.” J Med Libr Assoc 101(2): 89-91.